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Bucs don’t know which way to go with Jameis Winston in 2020

Rick Stroud | Bruce Arians says he wants to wait another month before making a recommendation to ownership. Here’s some reasons why.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) listens as offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich gives him instructions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [PHELAN M. EBENHACK  |  AP]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) listens as offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich gives him instructions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP]
Published Dec. 7, 2019
Updated Dec. 8, 2019

TAMPA — That Bruce Arians isn’t ready to commit to Jameis Winston for 2020 shouldn’t be too surprising.

Arians was asked last week what he would tell Bucs owners to do with Winston, and he simply didn’t want to go there.

“I’m going to pass on that one,” he said. “I’m going to wait until the end of December.

“There’s been really, really, really good (with Winston), and there’s been some really, really bad. I’m going to pass until (the season is) over, and then we’ll make a decision.”

The Bucs have until early March to apply the franchise-player tag to Winston. Doing that would effectively prevent him from testing free agency while guaranteeing him a one-year deal with the average salary of the top five quarterbacks. For a quarterback, that could be in the $25 million to $27 million range. This year it’s $24.865 million.

In the NFL, you rarely announce a decision until you must. So Arians’ perceived indifference about Winston shouldn’t be overanalyzed. Why create leverage for a player in negotiations?

It’s also in line with what everyone has been hearing at the Bucs’ training center. The Bucs simply don’t know which way to go with Winston. That may sound silly considering only four games remain in his fifth NFL season.

Surely, Winston isn’t going to become something different after this much time.

Despite all the hope Arians’ offseason hiring brought with his reputation as a quarterback whisperer, Winston has thrown a career-high and NFL-most 20 interceptions. He also has thrown 22 touchdown passes and is second in the league with 3,659 passing yards. Some really, really good, and some really, really bad.

So why would the last four games really matter?

The Bucs just went 3-1 in the third quarter of the season. If they duplicate that or go 4-0 in December, that would be a strong finish. You’d have to assume it would mean Winston had played winning football for a couple of months. Wins and losses are part of the picture, but if he could throw 10 or 11 touchdown passes and only a couple of interceptions down the stretch, that would ease some fears among the coaching staff.

Another question is whether Winston prefers to remain in Tampa Bay, especially under the franchise tag if the Bucs’ aren’t willing to do a longer-term deal.

The free-agent quarterback class in 2020 is potentially the best in years, particularly for players with name recognition. Potentially it could include Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater, as well as Winston.

You can probably assume that Brady and Brees won’t be leaving their teams. But there would be no shortage of interest in Winston if he makes it to free agency.

Winston turns 26 in January, is very tough, rarely misses games and works on his craft. He also has the most turnovers of any player since 2015. Opposing teams have scored a staggering 82 points off his turnovers. Reducing those mistakes was the biggest point of emphasis coming into the season. Heck, going into all five of his seasons.

There are still mixed opinions about Winston. But because of his pedigree as a No. 1 overall draft pick, teams could look at his 26-40 record as the product of playing for a bad organization with poor defense and virtually no running game.

Remember, Steve Young, Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer played for the Bucs, too.

If Kirk Cousins can get three years and $90 million guaranteed from the Vikings, it stands to reason Winston could find one team with at least as much interest.

The Bucs can only hope the last four games bring some clarity to their quarterback plans. But if they truly are still undecided about Winston, as Arians suggests, that’s also telling.

It’s Brate, as in wait

Much has been made about the lack of production from the Bucs’ tight ends. But no player has had to be more patient than Cameron Brate, who has played 37 percent of the offensive snaps. Brate has 26 catches for 229 yards on 36 targets. It’s his fewest receiving yards since his rookie season.

“You have to be patient,’’ Brate said. “All you can do is kind of like what you’re asked to do. I try to always be consistent with who I am every single day and what I do. You know, sometimes randomly I’ll get 14 targets in a game. … You kind of always have to be ready for that situation to arise.”

One reason for Brate’s numbers is that receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are having Pro Bowl seasons, with each going over 1,000 yards.

“We kind of take the scraps off of them,’’ Brate said. “I mean, if I was our (offensive coordinator), I would draw up plays to Mike and Chris just the way those two have been playing this year.”

Brate has four years left on a six-year, $40.8 million contact. But $4 million of his $6 million 2020 contract is guaranteed only if he is on the Bucs’ roster on March 27.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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